Finding Myself

Since the age of nine, I have wanted nothing more than to swim the channel. Sitting on the side of the Lido talking to Ken Raffaitin I was told that an 11-year-old boy had accomplished the feat. I turned and said to my dad that I could beat the lad and that given a years training I would do so. Told to “stop being stupid” I had that idea crushed, but 10 years later I did a years training and set out on completing my childhood ambition.

For me having a gap year is all about doing something that at no other time in your life will you get the same opportunity to do so. I saw the year as my opportunity to achieve greatness, to do something that I had dreamed about for 9 years. I am not someone who is prepared to just follow the crowd, I see little point in travelling the world in order to spend even more time with people who I have known my whole life. Perhaps my biggest draw to swimming the channel was the enormity of the whole thing, the seemingly impossible task; something that many claim can’t be done.

The year had many highs and lows. Possibly the hardest thing for me was the loss of many of my friends for so long. Whilst they all travelled around the world, I was left on my own. Day by day I trained, whether it is in a gym or a pool or the act of forcing even more food into me. The constant reminders of the amazing activities my friends were doing, places they had seen and things they had done did many times get me down. For so long there appeared to be no finish line. Dover Harbour called every weekend, the water cold as ever, but the time in the water continued to increase week by week. Under the guidance of Freda Streeter and her band of constantly merry men, I got my head down and always did what I was told. Every swim brought new emotions out and in a weird way you go on a different journey every swim. Whilst the scenery and personnel was always the same, every swim was so very different. The songs that play in your head, the film you reenact or the rekindling of forgotten memories, each single one brings out emotions I had never experienced before. The longer the swim, the easier I found it. The more time I spent in the water, the more I was able to let go and just be at one with my emotions.

It was only when there was 3 weeks left of training that I suddenly started to really think about the swim itself. Another whole range of emotions crept into me, the sense of excitement along with fear continued to be the overriding themes playing in my head. Suddenly I had to put together things for the day itself. The crew, the food, my equipment, feeding schedules, there seemed to be no end of issues that needed to be addressed prior to me actually getting into the water. The closer the swim got, the more the stress built up. Eventually with a week to go I was fairly confident with everything. After being given guidance by so many, I was ready to embrace the swim itself.

For a week, I waited every night at 7 o’clock for a call to say “Harry we leave this evening”, but as the week went on the weather seemed to get progressively worse. However by some miracle Friday the 31st of July looked like it would give me an opportunity to make my attempt. Sure enough Thursday evening I received my call telling me that we would leave tomorrow morning 6am.

When it came to creating my crew I went for the full attention-seeking package. Eight close friends along with my mother were chosen to help give me the support I would need, in order to make a successful crossing.

The morning of the swim was lovely, the sun was rising and the wind wasn’t strong. I got greased up and at 5.53am jumped off my boat and walked onto the beach of Samphire Hoe in Dover. A hooter sounded and away I went. “Swim to the next feed” was the thought constantly running through my head, at certain intervals I would come close to the boat and one of my crew members would chuck me a bottle containing my feed, a disgusting carbohydrate supplement called Maxim. The swim itself was fairly uneventful, a rather large vomiting session on the 3 hour mark and being stung by a pool of jellyfish were just about the two most exciting parts of my swim. The hardest issue to get over was the sight of France never seeming to get any closer. Eventually it did and after what seemed like an eternity, buildings on the French shore became visible. My mother then had the very bright idea to infuriate me in the water, by saying “you’re getting beaten by a girl” at which point I turned to her and hurled a great deal of abuse, that I never wish to repeat again. Finally I reached the rocky beach of Cap Gris Nez and after pulling myself onto a rock, thereby completing my swim, I was embraced by all eight members of my crew. My mother in tears was the sight that really made me appreciate the enormity of what I had down. 11 hours 37 minutes it took me to complete my swim.

The journey back was the greatest few hours of my life. Absorbing what exactly I had done brought a level of happiness to me that I had never experienced. 11 hours 37 minutes was the constant thing running through my mind.

In doing my swim, I was able to raise money for The Guide Dogs for the Blind charity. Completing my swim was so important not just because I was achieving a childhood goal, but because I was able to raise money in order to support those who are less fortunate than me. Through the money raised, we will be able to help change the lives of a few people. Not only will these individuals have a dog to help with their everyday needs, but they will also have a friend constantly by their side.

I am not able to say thank you to everyone who helped me with my swim, but everyone who knows me will have played a small part in helping me get across the channel. In particular however I would like to say thank you to the Lido members who helped get me fit from April onwards, my family, to Freda Streeter, Barry, Irene and all those who helped in Dover Harbour, my crew and especially my mum who for 11 hours and 37 minutes watched my every stroke and gave me the confidence to continue until the job was done.

My gap year was a journey for me, a time in my life where I really did discover myself, and I did it all on a single day trip to France…

by Harry Barker